Thursday, March 27, 2014

Of Scratches and Bad Patches

After the upheaval of the past few weeks, the calendar posted on the side of our refrigerator, all neatly demarcated boxes and penned-in times and places, looks like a quaint artifact, something out of Martha Stewart magazine ("March 17: Trace Irish roots to 10th century...March 20: Check the asparagus beds and rotate silk sock collection...").

What conceit, to write down all these plans and expect everything to fall neatly into place!

I'm not referring to the dreadful mudslide in Oso, Washington, which wiped out families and homes, dramatizing in terrible scale how the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Our avalanche was one involving family members, hospitals, and future decisions, the sort of landslide that sweeps through every family from time to time.

Because these events kept us busy darting here and there in the car and making and keeping new appointments, there was little time for us all to attend to the ordinary, everyday chores and pleasures on the home front. This meant the dog wasn't walked, the cats weren't stroked, the house wasn't cleaned, and the horse wasn't visited.

Fortunately, the dog is patient, the cats forgiving, and the house can wait. The horse, however, needs care, and of course he was tended to, first in his current home and then the one he was moved to halfway through the crisis period.

But according to everybody tending to him, he certainly missed the Resident Teen, behaving in a generally  mopey way and not even biting people with his usual enthusiasm.

Before the schedule went haywire, the Resident Teen was dutifully attending to Avi's feet, which were suffering some of the maladies that Washington State horses are particularly prone to suffering during our long, wet, muddy winters: thrush and scratches.

"Thrush and Scratches" sounds like it would make a great name for a band, or perhaps a pair of guinea pigs. They are actually really annoying infections. Thrush is a bacterial or fungal infection of the frog of a horse's hoof that causes a foul-smelling discharge and rotting of tissue. Scratches (also called grease heel, cracked heel, dew poisoning, and mud fever) is a fungal infection of the horse's lower leg, with the fungus often being assisted in its evil encrustation of the skin by bacteria and mites.

Treatment for these maladies involves a lot of diligence, antiseptics, gauze, scab-picking, hoof-cleaning, and maintenance of dry conditions.

It's the Resident Teen (and, in our absence, her friends) who crouches on the floor to medicate Avi's soles, scrape off scabs, and pack his thrush-afflicted hoof with gauze pledgets, then wrap it in duct tape.

After years of taking care of the Resident Teen's head--cradling it when she was a newborn with a floppy neck, putting bonnets on it on sunny days, providing it with bicycle helmets and riding helmets--I don't think I will ever completely feel at ease seeing it lowered in the vicinity of a horse's hooves.

But she's got the practical experience I never had the chance to obtain, because she's been working with horses since she was about six years old, and with that experience comes confidence. I stick to observation and fascination.

And research...while the Resident Teen gets on with the useful task of clearing up the thrush and scratches, I putter about in old horse books so I can pester her with trivia.

An 1887 guide to horse care, for example, has a great deal to say about scratches. The author suggests poultices of linseed meal applied to the afflicted areas for several days, combined with purgative and diuretic medicines. Dressings sound like alchemists' dreams: they include ingredients such as acetate of lead, sulphate of zinc, and sulphate of iron. Pulverized gentian root, beeswax, scrapings of sweet elder, skunk oil, and lard figure into the recipes, too. One of the remedies is credited to "a drunken horse doctor" who cured the author's favorite horse, "old Turco."

A 1947 tome, The Book of the Horse, offers stern advice on stable management from the point of view of a long-ago Master of Fox Hounds, D. W. E. Brock. Brock does not mince words (for example, "One water-brush should last you three lifetimes," he admonishes, noting soon after that "The average groom is incapable of drying the heels thoroughly").

He doesn't offer specific advice on treating thrush or scratches, but he doesn't advocate mucking about trying to cure things that are better left to the veterinarian. Not just any vet, however: "Every vet may have the technical knowledge necessary to deal with a horse, but quite a number of them are more at home with poms in drawing rooms than with cantankerous thoroughbred horses in stables."

No need for a vet, in Avi's case--his feet are in good hands. So is the rest of his body--he moved to a new stable in the midst of all the turmoil, or actually back to the first one, where we met him, a calm, clean, and light-filled stable where he feels very much at home.

I'll never forget the look on his face when we and the Resident Teen walked up to the stable for the first time together after his move. He had his head and neck out the window of his stall and was chomping on hay. When he spied us--and his very own girl, in particular--he froze, ears pricked, like a horse in a storybook. He even stopped chewing and let the hay hang down like a Santa Claus beard.

Though the pesky fungi, bacteria, and mites took full advantage of the briefly opened window of opportunity that chaos provided, they are being routed thanks to the administrations of the Resident Teen and her friends. Other challenges will take more than scrapings of elder and sulphate of zinc to conquer, but will likewise be confronted and overcome with the help of others.